By Agence France-Presse
French President Emmanuel Macron and his administration on Tuesday defended their handling of the scandal over violence by a top security aide, which has seen the approval ratings of France’s leader sink to a record low.
At a gathering of lawmakers from his Republic on the Move party, Macron said he was “in charge” and considered the actions of his now-fired aide Alexandre Benalla a “betrayal.”
“If they are looking for the person in charge, the only person, it’s me and me alone,” Macron said, according to lawmakers present at the event marking the end of the parliamentary session.
“I am the one who trusted Alexandre Benalla,” Macron told them, adding that Benalla had been a supporter during his campaign but that he felt like “the acts on May 1st were a disappointment or a betrayal.”
The 40-year-old president also insisted that “no one had been protected” from facing the rules and laws of the country.
Earlier in a stormy parliamentary session dominated by questions about Benalla, who faces charges of assault and impersonating a police officer, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted “nothing has been hidden” from the public.
Videos have emerged over the past week showing 26-year-old Benalla hitting a young man during the May 1 protest in Paris while wearing a riot officer’s helmet and police armband, and wrestling a woman to the ground.
Macron’s aides did not inform prosecutors about the incident, despite a law requiring public officials to alert authorities if laws are broken.
The scandal, dubbed “Benallagate”, has prompted furious opposition claims of an attempted cover-up, which the government denies.
Benalla was suspended for two weeks without pay in May and transferred to an administrative role — though he was repeatedly seen in Macron’s security details until he was finally fired on Friday.
“I understand that some people might wonder if the decision taken was sufficient,” Philippe said of Benalla’s punishment, admitting that “a republic that strives to be exemplary is not always perfect”.
Macron’s office director Patrick Strzoda, appearing before a National Assembly committee investigating the case, acknowledged he imposed Benalla’s suspension as well as a “demotion” that involved stripping him of responsibility for some elements of the president’s security.
But he said that since no complaint was filed against Benalla, and that an analysis by the national police oversight body had not flagged any irregularities, he did not see any need to inform prosecutors.
“I determined that at my level I did not have enough elements to justify” such a move, Strzoda told lawmakers.
The head of the police oversight body, Marie-France Moneger-Guyomar’ch, also testified on Tuesday that police had no reason to believe the person in the Benalla video was not an officer and that the violence “was not illegitimate (if) carried out by police officers”.
Macron’s chief of staff Alexis Kohler will appear before a separate Senate committee on Thursday.
Macron has so far refused to speak to the public on the worst scandal to hit his government since he was elected in May promising to restore integrity to French politics.
He has called off Wednesday’s scheduled appearance along the Tour de France route in southern France, though his office insists the move was unrelated to “Benallagate”.
He also posted his first tweet in five days Tuesday — an unusually long absence for the social media-savvy president — to offer condolences to victims of the wildfires raging in Greece.
His silence appears to have dented his ratings, with 60 percent reporting an unfavourable opinion in an Ipsos poll published Tuesday — a record low for the 40-year-old centrist.
An Elabe poll found 80 percent were “shocked” by the scandal, with 75 percent urging Macron to break his silence.
“The problem isn’t Alexandre Benalla’s misconduct but rather the structure that made it possible,” said Bruno Cautres, a political scientist in Paris.
“No matter the administrative or judicial consequences of this affair, it will mark a before and after for Emmanuel Macron.”
‘Lending police a hand’
Opposition lawmakers have seized on the scandal, paralysing debate in parliament while accusing the administration of trying to protect Benalla.
Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans has announced he will seek a no-confidence vote against the government, though this would be unlikely to succeed given the solid majority held by Macron’s LREM party.
Benalla has defended his intervention during traditional May Day demonstrations in the capital, which were marred by clashes between police and around 200 youths.
In a statement from his lawyers he said the young man and woman he was filmed scuffling with were “particularly violent individuals” he had been trying to “bring under control” while “lending a hand” to police.
Along with Benalla, Vincent Crase, a security agent employed by Macron’s party who was also at the scene, has been charged with assault.
Three police officers have also been charged with providing police surveillance footage of the scene to Benalla to help him try to justify his actions.